Papa And Pancho Villa

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Aside from being the only private in Fancho Villa’s army, my father had another distinction—he was probably the only man ever to be dragged into an army at the end of a harness. But, as any fair-minded person will coneede, he was not trying to avoid military service; he was simply resisting an outrageous expropriation of his personal property.

His sudden “enlistment” occurred on a sultry October afternoon in the dusty little plaxa of Bachimba, Chihuahua. My father had come to town to purchase a harness at Don Epifanio’s general store, and many years later he could still recall the strange, ghostly silence that seemed to hover in every doorway as he entered the square. Only an occasional child greeted him when he clomped along the wooden sidewalk, half dragging an old cart with squeaky wheels. He was slightly more than seventeen years old.

He passed Don Miguel’s barbershop, the old barber asleep in his swivel chair. This being the siesta hour, the three small stores beyond the barbershop-canteen were also closed and shuttered against the blistering sun. But Don Epifanio, a stay-awake gachupin from Madrid who was the only affluent merchant in that impoverished area, was predictably open for business when my father entered his store.

Qué tal, viejo ,” he said. (In Mexico people greet all boys as “old man” and all old men as “youngster.”)

Emboldened by Don Epifanio’s friendly familiarity, my father acknowledged the greeting and then inquired about the unusual quiet in Bachimba and the absence ol any adults in the plaza.

“Then you have not heard:’” asked the Spaniard. ” Pancho Villa was here yesterday. With two hundred men he came. And he took ten sacks of” flour from me, four jugs of tequila, and a dozen steel combs. Some other things, too. Then he told me to charge it.”

My father glanced at the loaded shelves beyond the old man and wondered why Fancho Villa’s men had left so much behind.

“And he also took some men with him,” Don Epifanio added. “They grabbed Domingo Ortega, Jesus Silva, the Marquez boys, and that young man who helped me in the store. All of them are in the army now. That’s why everybody’s hiding now. That’s why you don’t see anybody in the plaza.”

“But Villa’s gone. You just told me.”

“Not very far, amigo . He left a small cadre behind, just south of Bachimba. You can see their camp from the church tower. And you’d better get out of town, muchacho . Don Pancho may decide to draft you into his thieving army.”

When my father mentioned that he was only seventeen, Don Epifanio knowingly observed that young boys, being more foolhardy and less circumspect than most adults, were probably prei’erred by the reckless vagabond leader of the fugitive Division del .\orle. But my father-to-be, having never seen that youthful army, had no basis for either agreeing or disagreeing with Don Epifanio’s judgment nor for heeding his advice about getting out of town to avoid being kidnapped. He chose instead to dawdle, and the impatient storekeeper finally interrupted his browsing with an almost abrasive curtness. “Surely you didn’t come here to loaf. What do you want, boy:'”

It was then that my father told him he might want to buy a new harness. But first he wanted to know if the old one (whieh he had hauled in the cart) could be repaired. It was ancient, its leather cracked and torn, and Don Kpifanio scofled at the possibility of salvaging it. With a heavy sigh of resignation my lather tossed it into a waste barrel and proceeded to haggle about the price of a secondhand harness that the old man had reclaimed from a nonpaying customer from San Luis. My father (after two hours of sporadic bargaining) offered to pay seventeen pesos. Shortly before sunset they settled on a price of eighteen pesos and fifty cents, the old gachupin darkly muttering, “You’re a worse bandit than Pancho Villa.”

Modestly pleased by this minor triumph and no doubt flattered by the comparison to Villa, my father carefully stowed the harness in his cart and solemnly thanked Don Epifanio for a pleasant afternoon. The sun, by now a precise red-orange disk poised on the jagged silhouette of the barren sierra west of Bachimba, cast an amber glow on the deserted bandstand in the plaza as my father started to cross the street. Then quite suddenly a loud and probably drunken voice ordered him to halt. Four soldiers shuffled toward him in a crudely menacing manner.

“Where are you going, boy?”

“What do you have in that cart?”

The two voices rolled over each other, yet my father heard them both—clearly and separately. But before he could answer either question, one of the men reached for the newly bought harness. Instantly—his proprietary instincts overriding his fear—my father grabbed the harness and started to pull it toward him. With almost equal alacrity, the two soldiers snagged the halter and started pulling in the opposite direction. My father held on to the harness with mulish determination. They struggled for several minutes; then one of the soldiers gradually narrowed his emotions to plain unadulterated disgust.